An Appeal to Common Wisdom in the Final Tale: The Parson’s Tale

The “Parson’s Tale” is the final story of The Canterbury Tales.

In the “General Prologue,” the Parson is described as a ‘good man of religion.’ He is erudite, scholarly, devout, and forgiving. The Parson believes that in order to be a good priest he must be perfect, because sheep follow their shepherd, but only if he leads by example. Above all, the Parson is a man of integrity: an essential example of Christian humility and charity. Naturally, his tale is not a fictional story (despite the Host’s request), and instead it is a perfectly honest and perfectly dreary essay -certainly not a tale that will be seriously considered as the winner in the competition.

By now, the sun is quickly setting and the group has reached the edge of town. The Host says, “fulfilled is my sentence and my decree” (17) –does this mean the Host has abandoned his initial request of each pilgrim to tell two stories on the road to Canterbury and, again, two tales on the return route? The only pilgrim who has come close to fulfilling his oath of telling two stories en route to Canterbury is Chaucer himself, but only because his first tale was interrupted and abandoned.

The Host asks the Parson to tell his tale quickly, but instead we are offered a lengthy theological diatribe that ends with a plea to the reader not to blame the author if offense is found in the tales. In blending his own voice with the Parson’s, Chaucer disguises his own particular preferences against the common prejudices of his era, namely the political power of the church, despite his numerous satirical jabs at clerical overreach throughout the Tales.

The form of the “Parson’s Tale” is prose, a form which the Host has already expressed distaste for (see Chaucer’s first tale). The tale, which is hardly a tale at all, discusses the topic of Penitence and its three affects, it is Chaucer’s apologia for his rowdy and occasionally ribald, but entertaining, collection of tales. As in Plato, Chaucer ends his Tales with an appeal to conventional wisdom, while also addressing a number of recurring themes throughout the tales, such as marriage (or rather the ongoing dialogue about the nature of a successful partnership). By selecting the Parson as the final storyteller, a man who clearly practices what he preaches, coupled with the fact that his tale is unpalatable, Chaucer highlights the necessity for a certain degree of authorial untruth in telling a tale. The idea of authorship and authority (both taking their linguistic roots from the Latin auctoritas) is at the heart of the final tale.

The “Parson’s Tale” is Chaucer’s justification for poetry. What is the best way to convey a message to a group of people? A fable? A poem? A chivalric romance? A philosophic essay? As previously evidenced in the Tales, the travelers find organized theological treatises less persuasive than fables, images, stories, or narratives. Thus, Chaucer sees poetry as superior to theology.

The “Parson’s Tale” ends with a brief note from the author, Chaucer, as he proudly announces his many books and translations (like Boethius) while also professing a meek spirit of contrition and penitence. The epilogue appears to have been written close to the end of Chaucer’s life, perhaps while he dwelled in Westminster Abbey. It contains the seed of great English poetry, like Shakespeare’s Prospero as his ‘revels now are ended.’ Chaucer’s goal of both delighting and informing is now complete, though the promise of two tales apiece is left unfulfilled (perhaps not unlike the failed promise of food and entertainment used to entice Socrates in Plato’s Republic).

Thus concludes my chronological reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

On The Wisdom of Silence in The Manciple’s Tale

After the close of the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” the Host merrily asks the embarrassingly drunkard Cook to tell a tale (recall that his earlier tale was left unfinished). However, the Cook can barely sit up straight on his horse, much less tell a tale delightful and informative tale. We find his character laughable because of his immoderate alcohol consumption and his physical ridiculousness –he is widely yawning and falling off his horse. An immoderate character cannot yield a successful poet though perhaps he can be a successful comedian. With the Cook indisposed, the Host now turns to the Manciple to tell a tale (the Manciple agrees and offers a gourd filled with wine to satiate the Cook’s appetite).

A Manciple is a purchaser for a law court. In the “General Prologue,” the Manciple is described as a worthy businessman, and a moderate man without debts. Remarkably, we are not given a physical description of the Manciple. The formal presentation of the Manciple is subordinate to the content of his tale. “The Manciple’s Tale” is the penultimate tale in The Canterbury Tales. It is about Phoebus Apollo, a most “lusty bachiler” (107), who once dwelled on earth as ancient books say (i.e. Ovid). He is a skilled archer and minstrel with a pet crow who is white-colored and sings beautifully from his cage. The crow can also accurately mimic humans. However, Apollo has a beautiful wife whom he imprisons in his house.

The Manciple pauses for a moment to comment on the nature of men, or natural law. He believes that men have uncontrollable appetites and a ‘lust for domination’ not unlike a cat chasing a mouse or even a she-wolf. In other words, he disagrees with Aristotle to an extent in that man’s inherently unjust nature cannot be habituated (in Aristotelian terms), or changed for the better.

At any rate, as a result of her imprisonment and neglect, Apollo’s wife pursues an affair and his white crow watches the lechery and shares his observations with Apollo, however Apollo, in turn, remarkably takes out his vengeance on the crow. He curses the crow, turning his feathers black (hence explaining why crows appear black). The lesson is that it is best to mind one’s own business and hold one’s tongue, as wise Solomon instructs. It is an injunction against gossip. Evil exists and it is best not to meddle with it. In addition, continuing with the recurring theme of marriage and the quest for a successful partnership throughout The Canterbury Tales, the practice of marriage is private and should not be interfered with, no matter the intimate details, according to the Manciple. In other words, it is better for a wife to cheat and for the husband to remain aloof than inform him of the treachery. A lie is better than the truth in some circumstances.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Trickery and Alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

“But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told;” (962-963)

Neither the Canon (a priestly administrator of a cathedral) nor his Yeoman are mentioned in Chaucer’s “General Prologue.” Instead, they have arrived quickly from the previous town and have met up with the traveling group of storytellers at Boughton under Bleam (an English village located between Faversham about five miles from Canterbury). From here, the pilgrims can see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. Thus, their pilgrimage has nearly reached its destination (or the halfway mark of the tales).

The newly arrived Yeoman initially describes his master (the Canon) as a most powerful man, capable of painting the road to Canterbury silver and gold, but the Host is skeptical, noting their shabby clothing. In ‘shame and sorrow,’ the Canon soon flees from the group and the Yeoman remains. As he speaks, he decides to be a little more honest and tell a story exposing his master’s trickery –the deceitful art of alchemy. The Yeoman now describes his lord (the Canon) as an ignorant and incapable man resulting from his efforts to practice alchemy. The Canon wears unrefined clothing (even a sock over his head instead of a proper hood), and he spends his time lurking down alleys with robbers and thieves. The Yeoman says his lord is “crafty” and “sly” (655), not unlike Homer’s Odysseus or the Serpent in the Bible. The Canon’s absurd quest into the art of alchemy has unfortunately forced both he and his Yeoman to live like beggars.

The Yeoman proclaims not to be a learned man, but he offers a prolonged description of the various chemicals and odd experiments performed by the Canon in an effort to discover the true elixir of life, or the ‘philosopher’s stone.’ Like Chaucer (the pilgrim), the initial part of the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is hardly a tale at all, but rather a lengthy diatribe against the art of alchemy and a cautionary warning against deceitful people. He is a sorely unhappy and disillusioned man.

In his tale, which begins halfway through his portion of the tales, the Yeoman describes a vicious and evil Canon (though he claims this person is not in any way representative of his lord because there are evil people in every profession). The Canon, in the story, claims to pursue the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone.’ One day, he tricks a good-natured priest into lending him money and he repays the priest with a lump of coal (dung) that he claims can easily be converted into silver. The Canon tricks the feeble-minded priest several times, and the tale ends with a series of cautionary warnings from the Yeoman at this “lusty game” which turn a man’s “myrthe it wol turne unto grame (sorrow),” and curiously he concludes with an account of a wholly anachronistic conversation between Plato and a disciple. Perhaps we should be skeptical of story-tellers like the Yeoman. He has been blinded (literally) and jaded by his master’s various plots to grow rich.

On the surface, the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is an attack on the art of alchemy, but it is also a reflection on certain types of story-telling, namely a journalistic exposé. In the context of the greater ‘Tales of Canterbury’ (a story about storytellers) we are tasked with judging each tale, and therefore also which poet, is superior. In order to understand the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” we require a great deal of context. What is alchemy? Why are alchemists evil people? And what better way to defame a self-proclaimed man of education and mystery than through the medium of literature? Throughout The Canterbury Tales, we uncover certain boundaries for good and bad literature, and the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” comes to light as a reflection of its author’s own character –he is similar to other resentful story-tellers (such as the Miller, the Reeve, the Friar, or the Summoner) who weaponize their tales in order to defame their enemies. Poetry offers the unique opportunity for a poet to conceal himself behind the facade of mere story-telling. However, in the quest to create a well-balanced story that both informs and delights, the Yeoman offers an excess of education but a dearth of delight.

Though the Yeoman is a stranger to the group, his tale shares kinship with many of the other themes which have been touched upon thus far throughout the tales, highlighting both the interconnectedness and the universality of literature.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Authorship in the Second Nun’s Tale

The “Second Nun’s Tale” begins with a warning about the vice of idleness (“English idleness”). Her tale is about “Seint Cecilie” (Saint Cecilia) and it is intended to cure the problem of idleness –it is a prescriptive tale. A tale of martyrdom is intended not simply to be entertaining, but to inspire a call to life. The prologue to her tale continues with an extended praise of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and an ordered account of Saint Cecilia, or “heaven’s lily,” including the origins of her name which serves as an introduction to the tale’s subject matter.

We are not given any information about the second nun in the “General Prologue,” and htis deprivation highlights our mind’s demand for information about an author. Who is she? As Aristotle mentions in the Rhetoric, we often look to the character of an author to assess the quality of a speech, story, or poem.

Chaucer’s source for the tale was apparently the “Golden Legend” -a collection of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs scribed by Jacobus de Varagine in the 13th century. It was an immensely popular book in medieval Europe.

The “Second Nun’s Tale” is a mere biography, or hagiography, of Saint Cecilia -a chaste and virtuous woman who descends from noble Roman birth and who marries a man named Valerian. On the their wedding night Cecilia claims an angel watches over her and protects her body from lechery. Valerian is skeptical so they travel to Saint Urban to allow Valerian to see the angel (he relies on his eyesight, not unlike Doubting Thomas). The trip works as Valerian sees the angel, who then offers him one wish, which Valerian uses to offer the bliss of Christianity to his brother, Tiberuce. Both brothers die in martyrdom, and then Cecilia is condemned to death in a boiling bathtub, but she does not die, so she is condemned to beheading but after three blows, her head does not fall off. She continues preaching in her partially decapitated state until her death and burial among the martyrs by Saint Urban.

This is the second mostly forgettable tale of martyrdom featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (following from “The Prioress’s Tale”). It is a boring tale fit for people who are easily drawn to tales of martyrdom and supernatural claims (of the kind of rumors circulated in early Christianity).

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.